Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Mobsters Heading to The Shore for Traditional Summer Vacations

It's going to be a real mob scene at the Shore again this summer. And police up and down the coast are getting ready.

That's mob as in M-O-B.

Wiseguys.

Goodfellas.

From Seaside Heights to Sea Isle City, law enforcement agencies are gearing up for a special group of sun-seekers who trade the sidewalks of South Philadelphia, Newark, and New York for the beaches, bars, and boardwalks of the Jersey coast.

It's part of a summer tradition.

"They go there to unwind," said Ron Rozwadowski, an investigator with the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice and former member of the State Police organized-crime squad that helped dismantle Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo's crime family back in the 1980s.

Rozwadowski, in fact, did a study on wiseguys summering at the Jersey Shore. Twenty years later, he says, little has changed. "It's easy to blend in," the veteran investigator said. "You have towns where the population quadruples. If there's 20 cars parked in front of a house, it's no big deal."

Crowded bars and restaurants offer easily accessible meeting places. A noisy boardwalk is the perfect barrier to audio surveillance. And the hyperkinetic action at the casinos provides another layer of cover.

That's not to say that all mobsters end their stints at the Shore tanned and rested.

Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino was taken into custody by the FBI at his rented condo in Margate in the summer of 1999, the start of what became a 14-year prison sentence built around a racketeering case.

The Scarfo crime family came undone in 1986 when the State Police bugged a condo on the Boardwalk in Ocean City where mobster Thomas "Tommy Del" DelGiorno was spending the summer with his family. And one of the most damaging pieces of video surveillance played at Scarfo's racketeering trial in 1988 was a shot of him meeting with mob informant Nicholas "Nicky Crow" Caramandi on the Boardwalk outside the Resorts International Casino-Hotel. The tape was used to independently support Caramandi's account of that meeting.

Ralph Natale, another former mob boss, enjoyed spending time in Sea Isle City, where one of his daughters had a home.

His successor, reputed Philadelphia mob leader Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi, has spent several recent summers in Margate, just south of Atlantic City, where a proliferation of upscale restaurants and bars has turned the once-frat-party-like bar scene into a more sophisticated night out.

The presence of Ligambi and other reputed mobsters has not gone unnoticed.

"We just keep our eyes and ears open for the state and federal agencies," said Margate Police Chief David Wolfson, who heads a 33-member department. "We beef up patrols, we do different things," Wolfson said of the department's approach to the influx of tourists and summer visitors. "Our investigative unit goes 24 hours a day. They're always on call."

But reputed mobsters, he said, are treated no differently than anyone else. "If they break the law, they're arrested," he said. "But dealing with them specifically, no, we don't do anything differently."

Low-key and taciturn, Ligambi has spent big chunks of June, July, and August in Margate each summer since his release from prison in 1997 after his mob-murder conviction was overturned. A creature of habit, Philadelphia police sources say, Ligambi last summer routinely headed for his rented Shore home on Thursday or Friday and returned to South Philadelphia on Monday or Tuesday. This year, they say, he has been spotted at his brother's home in nearby Longport, a posh Shore community nestled between Margate and Ocean City.

Barring any unexpected developments - Ligambi is the target of an ongoing FBI racketeering investigation, and the feds have a habit of making their arrests in the summer - the reputed crime kingpin could be celebrating his 70th birthday in August at the beach.

Younger members of the organization are usually part of the weekend crowd at Shore towns up and down the coast. Law enforcement sources say many will end up at Memories in Margate on Saturday nights. The popular bar, owned by Philadelphia's iconic disc jockey Jerry Blavat, draws a young, hip crowd, a mix of movers-and-shakers, wiseguys, and wannabes.

Rozwadowski said the Shore has always been "neutral" territory. He recalled that, during his State Police days, a surveillance in Seaside Heights turned up members of the Genovese, Gambino, Lucchese, and DeCavalcante crime families getting together.

Even before legalized casinos, Atlantic City was a magnet for mobsters. One of the most famous organized-crime confabs in history occurred in 1929 at the old President Hotel on the Boardwalk.

Among those attending was Al Capone, whose trip home to Chicago was short-circuited when he was arrested on a gun charge during a train stop in Philadelphia. He ended up spending about a year in the old Eastern State Penitentiary. His former cell is now a set piece of the prison museum on that site. And while Ligambi might cringe at the ostentation, not every mobster has taken a low-key approach at the Shore.

Scarfo, in the early days of casino gambling, was often spotted ringside at prize fights in the casino-hotels. Other mobsters, before being placed on the casino-exclusion list, would belly up to the craps and blackjack tables.

For younger mobsters and their associates, the game of choice now appears to be poker, and law enforcement authorities keeping tabs on the mob at the Shore regularly check the posh poker lounges in the casino-hotels.

Merlino, even before his arrest on racketeering charges, was a lightning rod for law enforcement. He was cited for gambling in a casino despite the fact that he was on the state's exclusion list, and on Labor Day 1998, he was given a series of citations for public drinking, resisting arrest, and littering. The littering charge came after he took the citation for public drinking, balled it up, and threw it on the ground in front of the police officer who issued it.

He paid a fine to settle his criminal problems, but not before he and others suggested they had been "targeted" because of their alleged underworld affiliations. Not so, said the police.

Wolfson, Margate's chief, said he has taken a very basic approach to the presence of reputed mob figures in his town. "They get treated the same way as everybody else," he said. "If they're not going to drive me crazy, I'm not going to drive them crazy."

Thanks to George Anastasia

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